I don’t get too political here on the blog. Just not my style. But as a historian from Canada, I’ve been intrigued with how Americans view their own history compared to the Great White North. And one thing that has become clear is that whatever else it is, American history is a battleground for political critters who covet the past as a kind of mythic prize and tool of validation. Other nations, including Canada, do this, too, but here it takes on a new life because it seems to appeal to a lot of people and people of influence. Even when it’s wrong, out of context, or so misunderstood as to be laughable.
My experience up north was that most folks found Canadian history boring (and it ain’t! Thanks a lot, high school!), and outside of things like land claims for Natives or the macro story of French/English relations, most people didn’t care if we discovered insulin, were the fourth largest military on earth in 1945, the third nation into space, or the first nation to devise a truly innovative post-war defence research organization that kicked ass (sorry, sorry, don’t let me start in on my dissertation). They don’t champion the Fathers of Confederation up there like the Founding Fathers down here.
Which is why I found this interview with American historian Dr. Jill Lepore, discussing how the Tea Party views American history, especially the founding fathers, revealing and troubling.
Lepore is an acclaimed historian of ideas and American history, and here she warns against what she saw as the recasting of America’s past by the Tea Party and their ilk as “fundamentalist” history: where the founding fathers become saints, the constitution becomes holy scripture, and America’s past, present, and future is a form of mythological destiny. It reminds me a little of the deification of Roman Caesars, known as the Imperial Cult. Not a comparison to be proud of (I recall Truman’s private thoughts about FDR, whom he respected and admired, upon his third term of office: “America needs no Caesar.”).
Based on my own training and ethics, such a view is both wrong and dangerous and must be challenged. History is never written in stone. It must, like it’s more verifiable cousin “science”, be subject to challenge and correction as new ideas, evidence, and interpretations emerge. It is a living thing, not dogma. Or, as Northrop Frye put it, “The writing of history is an art, but no one doubts that the scientific principles are involved in the historian’s treatment of evidence, and that the presence of this scientific element is what distinguishes history from legend.”
When history becomes legend, it is no longer the purview of the historian, or the journalist, or any kind of critical investigator trained to search for truth (one who starts with questions and finds answers, not the other way around). Legend, when turned into truth, is the wheelhouse of the demagogue, who will soon tell you there is one best way to view the past. Their way.
To which I say, no way. History is awesome. In the right hands it can be more compelling than the best fiction, and has a critical role in how we understand the world (all of the world: EVERYTHING has a history!). But it must be allowed to grow, to change, to challenge. The vanguard of history are facts, context, and analysis, rooted in rigorous research. A historian should be the sworn and mutual enemy of anyone who tries to turn the past into mythology, be it the Fuhrer, Uncle Joe, Big Brother, the Great Benefactor, the Grand Inquisitor, and all of their brood. It’s not just tweed jackets and leather elbow patches. It’s important, and worth thinking about.
And they say history is boring!